When federal authorities unsealed terrorism-related charges Monday against eight Minnesota men, they provided the first detailed account of how some two dozen young Somali-Americans were persuaded to leave the U.S. and join an Islamist insurgency in Somalia.
While the recruitment methods are textbook and familiar — such as questioning the men's Muslim faith and dedication to Somalia — the effectiveness, and breadth, of the campaign has surprised intelligence officials.
"This is a unique case in the United States," the special agent in charge of the FBI's Minneapolis office, Ralph Boelter, told NPR. "Folks in the United States traveled to a foreign country to attend a terrorist camp, run by al-Shabab in this case. Some actually engaged in hostilities on behalf of al-Shabab. We haven't seen anything quite like this before."
If the allegations are true, the FBI in Minneapolis has been investigating one of the largest alleged terrorist networks in the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The numbers tell the story — some two dozen young men were recruited and at least 14 allegedly helped funnel the young men to the front lines in Somalia. The FBI is also investigating disappearances of young Somalis in San Diego, Boston and Ohio.
According to the charging documents, the recruitment effort in Minneapolis began back in 2007, a short time after Ethiopian troops had invaded Somalia. A cooperating witness allegedly told the FBI that he and other men met at various locations around the Twin Cities to talk politics. The conversation invariably turned to the Ethiopian invasion. The young men wanted to know what they could do to help.
Al-Shabab, an Islamist militia that opposes the transitional government in Somalia, was one obvious avenue. It had been a rather ragtag force fighting African Union troops and Ethiopian forces in Somalia, and many in the Somali-American community in Minneapolis initially saw al-Shabab as freedom fighters and Somali nationalists. The young men in Minneapolis felt drawn to its cause.
In the fall of 2007, the FBI's confidential witness reported, the young men called a contact in Somalia from a local Minneapolis mosque. The contact allegedly told the young men "we need you guys here" to fight the Ethiopians.
Among the men charged yesterday was Cabdulaahi Ahmed Faarax. The FBI says he is the one who persuaded the young men to travel to Somalia and fight. During that meeting at the mosque, he allegedly regaled the young men with his experiences on the battlefield. According to the charging papers, Faarax told the young men that traveling to Somalia to fight jihad would be fun and they shouldn't be afraid.
Going To Somalia
According to an FBI affidavit, Faarax and another of the accused men conspired to recruit and pay for six Somali-Americans from the Minneapolis area to go to Somalia in in December 2007. The young men allegedly went to training camps in southern Somalia.
One of the young men in that first group was Shirwa Ahmed, 27, a college student from Minneapolis. He may be the most famous of the Minneapolis travelers because he allegedly blew himself up in one of five simultaneous attacks that killed 22 U.N. aid workers and others in Somalia in October 2008. The FBI says it made a positive identification based on the remains of one finger found in the blast.
Ahmed added a new urgency and dimension to the FBI investigation because he was used to attack an international target. American officials have long been worried that the young men might be commissioned by al-Qaida and used to strike against the United States. FBI officials are quick to say that they haven't seen any sign of that kind of threat.
But there are worrisome connections. NPR reported two months ago that one of people who trained the Minneapolis Somalis was Saleh Ali Nabhan. He has been a key al-Qaida leader in Pakistan and has been wanted for his role in the 1998 attacks on two U.S. embassies in Africa. He was killed by a U.S. helicopter raid in September. The concern is that there are other connections with al-Qaida that haven't been uncovered yet.
Naturally, the big question looming over all of this is why al-Shabab would go to all the trouble to bring in recruits from the United States to fight in a civil war half a world away. Officials say it all gets down to money and prestige. The young men who traveled from the U.S. to Somalia paid their own way and often even bought their own guns. There was also a certain amount of cachet, both for al-Shabab and for the young men, to boast about training, or being, a foreign fighter for battle. And that was enough to get some two dozen Minnesotans to sign on.